Let’s be honest: the Mona Lisa, which most would regard as the world’s most famous painting, is a bit of a dud.
I remember my first trip to Paris, at age eighteen, where I joined the throngs at the Louvre Museum. I dutifully stood in line for more than an hour, and then, when at last I got to see Leonardo da Vinci’s fabled masterpiece with my own eyes, I turned to my cousin who was with me at the time and asked: “is that it?”
I mean, as paintings go it is small, and frankly not that fantastic, and shielded away behind the crush of people and the crowd control barriers, it looked pretty pathetic.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
My Mona Lisa experience was probably always going to be an anti-climax, given the expectations of greatness that had accumulated in my mind ever since first encountering that wry smile in Grade 2 art class. And then at the Louvre itself the queues, the burly security men, and the museum audio-guide waxing lyrical about “the incomparable lady” did little to temper those fevered expectations. I can’t help wondering whether I would have been more impressed had I stumbled upon her in the knave of a disused Tuscan church, instead of behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre. I suspect so.
Many “must-see” tourist attractions suffer from this sort of anticipatory overkill. I got more joy buying a baguette at the local boulangerie than from visiting Paris’ “world-famous” Montmartre. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is, well, a bridge. London’s Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are positively droll, and what about Brussels’ most famous sight, the “Mannequin Piss”? All I can say is that if you travelled to Belgium especially to see this uninspiring statue of a little boy peeing, then, like me, you’d be Mannequin Pissed-Off.
The point is that there are very, very few places in this world that actually live up to the hype. But India’s Taj Mahal, in Agra, less than two hour’s train ride from the capital Delhi, is most emphatically one of these.
Which is saying something, given that the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly one of the world’s most well-known, iconic buildings. Its image features in countless books and magazines and just about every film that has anything to do with India. You’d be hard pressed to find a primary school child who couldn’t name it on sight, and by the time we are adults the association is instant: say the word “India”, and almost certainly what pops into mind is the Taj Mahal.
Then, when you eventually get to India, Taj Mahal-aphelia goes into complete overdrive. At any Indian airport the “Welcome to India” sign will have a gleaming white Taj Mahal in the background. Your guidebook most likely will have a gratuitous image of the Taj Mahal on its cover. Every tourist office you visit, every brochure you pick up, every hotel lobby you enter – you can bet your last dollar that there will be a reference to the Taj Mahal, somewhere.
Not to mention that every traveller you meet in India will sooner or later ask you: “So, what did you think of the Taj Mahal?”; and every Indian you meet will sooner or later refer to it in a hushed whisper, the be-all-and-end-all of travel in their country. As in: “Do you like India? Ah, but wait – you haven’t really been to India until you have seen the Taj Mahal”.
Basically, a trip to India without a visit to the Taj Mahal would be about as unthinkable as Michael Jackson foregoing plastic surgery, and after many months travelling around India, we made our way to Agra, specifically to see “the Taj”. It was not a case of leaving the best for last, given that I was convinced it would be a colossal disappointment. Rather, it was more like we had a chore to do, and simply couldn’t leave India without doing it. So when Taj-Day finally arrived I somewhat reluctantly clambered out of bed, figuring that we may as well get it over and done with, preferably in time for lunch.
In the event, I was completely blown away.
The Taj Mahal is, quite simply, awe-inspiring. It is magnificent and perfect and beyond superlatives, and fully deserving of being called “a tear on the face of eternity” (which is how an Indian poet once described it).
We entered the complex of buildings that houses the Taj Mahal though one of its three gates (imaginatively they are named the East Gate, the North Gate and the West Gate; there is no South Gate, because to the south is a river). The gates all led into a large open air courtyard, dissected by various paths and walkways, creating neatly bordered patches of green grass.
At the southern end of the courtyard is a huge rectangular stone block with an enormous arched gateway in the centre, flanked by two smaller gateways. It is built of red stone, with verses from the Koran and traditional Islamic motifs inlaid into the marble, and capped by three shiny white domes. As gates go it was possibly the largest one I have ever seen in my life, and truly monumental. Anywhere else this would have been a tourist attraction in its own right, but here it was just a sideshow to the main attraction, waiting for us just on the other side.
We passed through the gateway and found ourselves standing on a slightly raised, paved viewing platform. And there it was, the Taj Mahal, right in front of us, standing majestically at the far end of a long, shallow pool, framed by a strip of grass on each side, an elaborate criss-crossing star pattern cut into them, and four white minaret towers on either side. And just in case it all wasn’t breathtaking enough, the whole lot was reflected beautifully in the still mirror of the water.
It was like looking at an exquisitely composed artwork, perfectly balanced in every respect, and I had to pinch myself, and to remind myself that what I was looking at was real and not a photo or painting or movie set.
It was all so totally captivating that it took a few minutes to notice that the platform where we were standing was completely overrun with tourists – foreign and Indian alike. What’s more, they were all engaged in the singular activity of furiously taking pictures, snapping away like mad on a vast assortment of cameras of all shapes and sizes. It seemed that everyone in India with a lens had decided to show up at the Taj Mahal that very day, and had figured out that this particular spot was the perfect place to snap the perfect souvenir pic, to prove to the folks back home that they had actually been here.
It was, strangely, quite fascinating to watch. Most started off with the regular “no-people basic panorama” photos, or equally elementary “person standing with the Taj Mahal in the background” shots. Although they quickly progressed to the “solo”, “couple”, “whole family”, and “entire group” photos. Then each of these pictures was taken again in the “person-squatting”, “person sitting”, and “person-posing” formats. And then for good measure most of the photo brigade added in a “torso-only”, “zoom”, “wide-angle” and “close-up” picture. Not to mention the “kiss-someone” and “pull-a-funny-face” varieties. Calculating all of the possible picture permutations would have kept a mathematician busy for days.
There were also a healthy smattering of incredibly irritating people, of the “look at me, I am such a hot-shit photographer” type. Such as the German man who spent half an hour photographing his friend from an angle, so that he looked like a giant about to pluck the Taj Mahal like a ripe fruit, by the spire on the top of its dome. Or the American woman photographing her husband is such a way that it would look like he was about to stamp on the Taj Mahal. Or the British guy who obsessed endlessly about getting the perfect shot from each of his three cameras, each mounted on a different tripod.
And for those imbeciles who were visiting the Taj Mahal without a camera, more than two dozen Indian photographers were hovering about, brandishing scary looking photographic equipment from the last century, and who for a small fee were more than happy to do the job for them.
In short, standing on the Taj Mahal viewing platform felt a bit like being at a rambunctious press conference. I could quite literally hear the whirring sound of hundreds of cameras, all clicking away in unison. And it occurred to me how odd the mania for taking photos can become. For many people the overwhelming need to “record” their memories means that they barely pause to look at whatever it is they are recording. As if having the experience is less important than the ability to re-live it sometime in the future. Go figure.
The Taj Mahal is the ultimate testimony to love everlasting.
So the story goes, Shah Jahan, a local ruler in the 17th century, was utterly devastated by the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal to serve as the Queen’s mausoleum. His only stipulations were that it should be built entirely of white marble, and it should be the most beautiful building in the world. There is no question that he got what he ordered, but it came at a price, almost bankrupting his treasury and ultimately costing him his liberty.
To give an idea of the scale of “Project Taj” (remember – this was almost 400 years ago) here are some statistics: 20,000 workers toiled daily for around 22 years; it cost 32 million rupees – a staggering fortune at the time; and in an era when international freight-forwarding operators were hard to come by, Shah Jahan managed to import marble and semi-precious stones from across India and much of the known world back then, including from as far afield as China, Tibet, Burma, Russia, Afghanistan and Egypt.
Once the Taj Mahal was complete, the unstoppable Shah Jahan announced plans to erect a second building, this time his own mausoleum. His plan was for “Taj Mark II” to be constructed entirely out of black marble, and built just across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal. I guess this was a yin-yang sort of thing, so that the King and his number one Queen could gaze at each other over the water, for all eternity.
Romantic this may have been, but it was all too much for Shah Jahan’s financially exhausted subjects. He was overthrown by his own son, who kept his father under lock and key until he died, eight years later, thereby making sure he couldn’t squander any more money on fanciful construction projects.
The final twist in the tale is that Shah Jahan’s prison until his death was a small room in the Red Fort, which had a sensational view of the Taj Mahal. So in a way he got his wish: able to gaze every day at the masterpiece he had built, dreaming of Mumtaz Mahal, and eventually dying a happy man. Or so they say, but personally I am not so sure – his official cause of death was put down as being strangury, a horrible disease that involves frequent mini-urinations accompanied by excruciatingly painful, wrenching spasms.
From up close, the Taj Mahal is even more superb than it is from a distance. There are numerous nooks and crannies, with many subtle angles and cut-away sections, so that a large part of its beauty is the interplay of light and shadow on the white marble surface.
The Taj Mahal is also big. It doesn’t look imposing in photos, but when you stand right up alongside it, you suddenly realise that it is enormous, quite literally towering above you. (Statistics lovers, take note: the Taj Mahal is precisely 55 metres high, and the spire adds a further 17 metres).
Notwithstanding its beauty and size, however, the thing I noticed most about the Taj Mahal was something not mentioned in any guidebook or tourist brochure, that being its near-magical ability to “absorb” the crowds that are constantly swarming around, on and through it.
Tourist sites which host thousands of visitors can very often seem crowded and cramped, and as a result can be distinctly unpleasant to visit. But at the Taj Mahal this never happened. Even though there were immense crowds everywhere, it somehow still felt like the entire complex had been closed down for the day, and we were the only two people there. We wound up visiting three times, and on each visit shared the Taj Mahal with at least five thousand others. But the sheer scale and presence of the place swallowed them all up. The huge mass of people simply faded into the background, unseen and unheard, becoming little more than random specks on the otherwise smooth marble. Leaving us alone, to wander as we pleased, unhurried and un-hassled.
All in all, a pretty neat vanishing trick, if you ask me. Now, if only they could work out how to do that with the rest of the country…..
We came to the main chamber of the Taj Mahal, which houses the grave of Queen Mumtaz, and stepped inside.
The first thing I noticed was the sound – not quite a silence, not quite a noise. The ceiling of the chamber was high above our heads, and the open space took any sounds we made, sent them up to echo in the higher parts of the chamber, where in a muffled kind of way they mingled with the chants and prayers of pilgrims and devotees.
The next thing I noticed was the light. Outside the chamber the white of the marble had been so bright I needed sunglasses to shield my eyes from the glare. Inside the chamber, it was dark, with intricate lattice panels letting in diffused shards of light that fell haphazardly over every surface, creating gorgeous patterns that shifted with the movement of the sun in the sky.
And then there was the temperature – mercilessly hot outside, but inside the Queen’s chamber it dropped markedly, so that it suddenly felt cool, almost cold.
All in all it was quite eerie, like we had stepped directly from the world of the living into the realm of the dead. Indeed, the unexpected change in temperature, the spooky acoustics, and the sudden transition from light to dark, quite literally sent a shiver down my spine.
We were approached by a security guard, an old fellow with white facial stubble that perfectly matched his scruffy white uniform. He gave us a short explanation on the history of the Taj Mahal, and showed us how to shout or clap in a way that created bone-chilling reverberations and echoes.
Next, the guard pulled us up to a section of the wall, which was covered in marble inlay. He pointed out one particular flower at random, and told us to look closely. The flower was made of semi-precious stones, flawlessly inlaid into the marble. We counted – the flower had four petals, and each petal consisted of up to seventeen stones, each of the stones of different shape and colour. This one little flower, no bigger than a twenty cent piece, probably represented about a week’s work by a skilled artisan. And this flower was just one of over two hundred flowers and designs that made up one panel in the chamber, out of maybe five hundred panels altogether.
Then, by way of grand finale, the guard produced a small torch hidden in one of the folds in his jacket, and shone it directly onto the flower. Instantly, the flower lit up, glowing from deep within, so that each coloured stone seemed to radiate its own coloured light. It was completely mesmerising – a masterpiece, a work of genius, a tiny object of the most delicate, exquisite beauty imaginable, and for me this little flower alone would have justified our visit to the Taj Mahal. Yet there were thousands, possibly millions of flowers just like it, not to mention countless other equally exquisite decorations, emblems and motifs, covering the walls. The scale of it all was mind-boggling, and near impossible to comprehend.
I immediately pulled out my own pocket torch (backpackers tend to carry this sort of thing around) and began roaming around the chamber like a crazed man, pouncing and shining the light onto random bits of the marble. Wherever the light fell, the inlay seemed to immediately acquire a soul, and glow with an almost human vitality.
It was wondrous, in every sense of the word, and I felt like I was a great conjurer, waving my light wand around and magically animating everything around me.
I can only imagine what the inner chamber of the Taj Mahal would have looked like at night, centuries ago, when every stone was perfect, candles placed on the floor and in the niches on the walls, the light and stones breathing life into each other. I have no doubt that anyone entering would have felt as if a human spirit – the spirit of Mumtaz Mahal – was there in the chamber with them.
Most likely exactly how Shah Jahan intended it to be.
That was supposed to be it, but then on the night before we were scheduled to leave Agra we were sitting in Saed’s, a little cafe in a side-street where we had become part of the furniture, and where we had one of those quirky most unexpected experiences. Against all the odds it stuck in my mind, displacing the Taj Mahal as my defining memory of Agra.
India attracts a disproportionate number of Israeli visitors, and when in Agra Saed’s caters to their peculiar dietary habits. That is, unlike your average Western backpacker who requires little more than toast and jam to survive, Israeli backpackers can never truly relax unless they have ready access to humus, falafel, pita bread, schnitzels and kebabs, all served in gargantuan portions. Israelis are also, as backpackers go, fairly xenophobic, and tend to prowl in packs with other Israelis. Saed’s is thus the Israeli “hang” in Agra – the place to see and be seen if you hail from the Hebrew speaking parts (part, really) of the Mediterranean.
On our first evening in Agra we had gone to Saed’s for the novelty value, and for some culinary variety following months of rice and curry. But we had returned twice a day for almost a week after because, quite frankly, Saed makes the best damn humus and eggplant salad this side of Tel-Aviv. Plus I liked the atmosphere: Israeli music, a few old Hebrew newspapers, and Saed served real mint tea with chocolate balls on the side, an essential accompaniment for an afternoon of competitive backgammon (boards freely available). Not to mention I got a kick from a menu being printed in Hebrew, and the Indian waiters being able to take our order in Hebrew.
Anyway, we were sitting in Saed’s, nursing our mint teas and playing backgammon (or more correctly, as Saed himself told me, “Shesh-Besh – like you call it in Israel, no?”), when an Indian man sitting at the next table leaned over and asked, in fluent Hebrew mind you, “would you like to buy a Chanukia?” (the nine-pronged candle-holder that is used during the Jewish Festival of Lights).
Obviously I had not really been expecting this question, of all things, in Agra, of all places. Bbut before I even had a chance to process how bizarre a question it really was the man had offered to sell me an entire range of mezuzot, Passover plates, Friday night candlesticks, and so on. All of these items, the man assured me, were “authentically Jewish”, made of marble or local stone, and “beautifully decorated” with inlay work.
Decorative marble inlay, such as we had seen on the walls of the Taj Mahal, is the specialty of the region, and Agra’s craftsmen are renowned for their work. Consequently, a large number of shops in Agra sell all manner of souvenirs and memorabilia inlaid with semi precious stones. The mass-produced tourist items are usually shoddy, but careful searching can turn up bona-fide works of art. And, now it seemed, Jewish religious paraphernalia, too.
I simply could not resist, even if the man was the most obvious of touts. And so we hopped on the back passenger seat of his motorbike, zipping through the dark and empty streets of Agra until we reached a marble workshop on the outskirts of town. There, sure enough, we came to a warehouse almost entirely given over to Jewish devotional items, crafted in the local style and inlaid with semi-precious stones of varying quality. It felt like we had been miraculously transported to the Old City of Jerusalem, or a Judaica shop in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights.
We browsed for more than half an hour, but were not buyers (anything bought wouldn’t have survived ten minutes of being schlepped around in our backpackers). Eventually the workshop owner despaired of trying to sell us anything. So we left the store, and headed back to Saed’s for a late meal of schnitzel, pita bread, hatzilim (roast eggplant) and humus. We ate to the grungy strains of an Israeli pop cassette, and the Hebrew babble of the other diners.
All in all it was an odd, but highly memorable evening. I couldn’t help wondering what Shah Jahan would have made of this “little Israel”, in Agra, India, and not fifty metres from the West Gate of his Taj Mahal.
The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time – Delhi.